Posted on September 16, 2021, 12:00 am
There is no clear, explicit link between poker and the world of music — unless you count a curious number of songs over the years that referred to the game in one way or another. And yet, when you think about some of the hobbies prominent musicians are known for off the stage, poker is one of the few that many seem to share.
From Frank Sinatra, to a number of prominent classic rock stars, to modern hip-hop and pop stars, there are actually a lot of musicians known to take their poker hobby quite seriously. And a few — such as heavy metal guitarist Scott Ian and legendary singer Joni Mitchell — appear to treat the game as a full-fledged passion.
So why might this be? For the most part, it’s probably just a coincidence, and to some extent a result of circumstances. Successful musicians make a lot of money, spend a lot of time traveling, and even wind up playing at casino venues a lot of the time. It’s no wonder a lot of them wind up getting into poker, whether to have some fun on international plane rides or to have some fun with money in a high-end casino. This would probably explain why poker also seems to be a popular hobby among successful athletes.
Then again, it’s also interesting to consider what musicians might gain from poker that keeps them coming back. And whether these benefits are pursued consciously or not, there are some aspects of the game that could well help a given musician to become a better performer.
A lot of people who have never dabbled in music themselves tend to equate performing musicians purely with success. If someone’s on stage — even a small one — they must be doing something right! That’s fair enough to some extent, but as was discussed in depth in the piece ‘When the Crowd Sucks’, performers face their challenges also. That’s not to say a tough crowd represents failure, but it’s still something negative to deal with and push past — and poker helps people learn how to do just that. Any skilled player will tell you that to excel in a poker game or tournament you need to keep your cool and focus on how you’re playing following a lousy hand or a big loss. The game teaches a sort of internal, stoic perseverance that can in turn help any musician to get past on-stage struggles and keep putting on a good show.
Staying Measured In Success
Keeping cool during a challenge is one thing — but this game also teaches players to stay measured while succeeding. A Poker.org piece on how to win at the game refers to this as never “getting too high,” and remaining level-headed rather than celebrating small victories. Now, this doesn’t exactly fit the image of a musical performer. Confidence and festivity are important, and a musician will often put on a better show by taking some time to soak up the attention of an adoring crowd. But it’s still important to stay level-headed in the process, so as to be able to keep giving a good show. Poker provides excellent training in this regard. A player who wins a $1,000 pot but is still playing has to be able to celebrate without losing his or her ability to focus on the next hand — just as a rock star being cheered by thousands has to roll right into the next item on the set list.
Reading Other People
This point is a little more tongue-in-cheek, but there is something to be said for learning how to read others as a performer. Poker, a lot of good players will tell you, is as much about psychology and social dynamics as it is about actual card-playing strategies or probabilities. Successful players tend to be able to understand what their opponents are thinking and how they might act before they do. Musical performance seldom offers such intimate interactions, but any musician with a talent for reading other people may well be able to play more effectively to a crowd. If you can tell how people are feeling and where they’re aiming their attention, you may just be able to adjust the performance accordingly.
Coping with Nerves
Here again there can be a misunderstanding between public perception and musicians’ realities. People watching shows tend to assume that performers are simply overflowing with confidence and self-assurance. In reality though, plenty of performers — including the really successful ones — still get nervous! A piece on TheGuardian.com a few years ago even went as far as to suggest that just about every performer experiences performance anxiety. This is a reality of the business, but it’s also one more thing poker might help with. It can be a tense, challenging game, and it ultimately makes a lot of players nervous from time to time. As with success and failure though, this is something that has to be handled in a measured way. Players learn to stay above the stress and perform, just as musicians ultimately have to.
By no means does this mean that musicians need to play poker, nor that musicians who do play poker are doing so specifically to improve in their main line of work. But the connection between music and the game is real, and there are several ways in which poker can train musicians in helpful skills.
Receive the latest information on Promotions, Gig Opportunities, Newsletters, and More!